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A Giant Among Mere Men

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some players are stars. Fewer are superstars. But only a handful are larger-than-life legends who turn their peers into gawking kids.

Among pitchers, those at the top of the pyramid are the hurlers who can fan 300 men in a season. Only nine men have done it more than once. Four of them did it twice, including Walter Johnson. Two of them did it three times, including Sandy Koufax. Then there is a gap up to the only two pitchers who have fanned 300 men an almost insane six times -- Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.

Johnson, in his 21st and perhaps final season, will start at Nationals Park tonight, with the chance to become the 24th pitcher in history to reach 300 wins. For Johnson, it is a chance, as always, to keep to himself, say next to nothing, maintain his menace, focus and mystique. For everyone else, it's time to tell Big Unit tales while he's still around.

Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns still remember the games, down to the details of their at-bats when they first faced Johnson in 2002. The Unit was still at the peak of his career, winning his fifth Cy Young Award, going 24-5 with 334 strikeouts, while they were two young sluggers for Cincinnati, their jaws slack at facing the 6-foot-10 legend. Now, they're vets and Johnson, 45, is in his glorious but difficult endgame with a 5.71 ERA.

"No one throws like him. He's 7-foot tall, throws three-quarter arm and brings it hard, real hard. And no one has a slider like that. If you're a left-handed hitter like me, it looks like the ball is coming in from first base and every pitch is going to hit you in the head," said Dunn who, thanks to his first career hit off Johnson last month raised his batting average and slugging percentage against the southpaw from .000 to .083.

"It's a unique combination," Dunn said. "There's no one to compare him to."

"And he will hit you," Kearns said.

"Oh, yes," echoed the 6-6, 285-pound Dunn, who usually intimidates pitchers, not the other way around.

In those games in '02, Dunn faced the Unit seven times, went 0 for 6 and fanned five times. In the other at-bat, Johnson hit Dunn, not the other way around.

"He knew I was due," said Dunn, menacingly, then he and Kearns laughed. Nobody has ever been "due" against Randy, except maybe due for a headache. "I don't remember him hitting me," said Dunn, a hitter's point of pride.

"Most left-handed hitters just took a day off when he pitched," Kearns said. "I hit a home run off him that year. Don't remind him."

Few want to be reminded of their encounters with Johnson. Nats reliever Ron Villone is an exception. "I got to bat against him twice in 1999 and I hit left-handed. I hit the ball once -- a lucky groundout to second," said Villone, 39. "He's so tall that it looks like he's pitching to you from a Little League mound that's 45 feet away. He struck out 17 that day, didn't walk anybody. It was unbelievable to watch him work.

Remember anything else? "I remember everything," Villone said. "We won 2-0. [Dmitri Young] hit two solo homers. I beat him."

Villone looks like he doesn't believe it himself, a career memory. But look it up. There it is. Both pitched eight innings. Johnson gave up seven hits, Villone only one.

For many years, few people knew Johnson well. A gawky giant when young, he was reclusive, trusted few and, in his early days in Seattle, would be up at dawn, taking artistic photographs -- everything from sunsets to the homeless. Now, he's far too famous for street art, but still rides his bike to every Giants home game -- a 6-10 icon sweeping past, no time for you to annoy him for an autograph, just time to snap a mental photograph.

"I played with him on two teams. He's a good teammate, great to talk about pitching with," Villone said. "But Randy does things his own way and you have to respect it. You may say something to him and he'll walk right past you like you're not there. But it's not personal. It's not about you."

The Big Unit, aside from his wife, five children and family, is essentially a towering solitary, a unique specimen who cultivated a hostile mullet-and-mustache persona on the mound for many years. What does he think about going for his 300th win? Come on, you don't think he was willing to talk about it yesterday, do you?

Johnson swept through the Giants' clubhouse, his shoulders far wider than they were when young, a testament to a work ethic that has taken him from a poor natural athlete -- with an apocalyptically bad .904 career fielding percentage -- to a strapping figure. But Johnson avoids revealing himself and seldom breaks from Mystique Mold if he can help it. When the Giants visit the White House today, Johnson won't go. "I've already been there," he said.

For the last month, he has dropped the occasional quote along the Giants' trail. "Pitching is increasingly becoming harder now," he said recently, referring to two back surgeries since '06, including removal of a herniated disk. "But there's a lot of gratification in going out and pitching well at this age.

"I'm not doing it as much as I'd like, but I take a great deal of pride in what I do," added Johnson, who is now in the third year of an undisguised, but never admitted quest for No. 300.

Unless the Nats, on pace for 119 losses, actually make a run at the '62 Mets record of 120, the only piece of baseball history that fans at Nationals Park may witness this season could be Johnson's 300th. On Sunday, struggling Jamie Moyer, age 46, finally got his 250th win against the Nats in Philly. These days, the Big Unit only wins a third of the time. But with the Nats Factor in his favor, why not round his odds up to 98 percent?

In any sport, many are good, few great, but almost none are utterly unique. The Big Unit is. In a career that includes three wins in the '01 World Series and an accolade for every inch of his stature, the Nats and their fans will get a glimpse, perhaps, of his last career crowning moment.

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